Day 246: Tracking a Ugandan Treasure

An early start gives Noah and his a group good luck.

September 3, 2015, Kibale National Park, Uganda — Livingstone and I were up and out early this morning with a special mission. We bolted breakfast, headed down the road to the Kibale Forest, and met a park guide there named Gerald in a dark parking lot. The three of us walked into the forest by headlamp in pitch blackness.

Gerald led the way. As we walked, the first stirrings of gloom appeared and, one by one, birds began to sing. I never get tired of experiencing a dawn chorus this way—there is nothing quite like standing in a forest when the first bird sings at the first ray of dawn.

Eventually, we turned off the trail, bushwhacked a ways, and stopped. “This is the spot,” Gerald said, and the three of us turned off our headlamps. We waited silently, hoping to hear the dawn display of a Green-breasted Pitta—one of Uganda’s most-wanted birds.

The Green-breasted Pitta is a spectacular, skulky resident of central African rainforests. To see one, you need local knowledge, patience, and luck. Gerald estimated our chances this morning at 40 percent. There are a couple dozen species of pittas in the world, mostly found in Asia (not to be confused with the antpittas of Central and South America), and I’d not yet seen any of them, so my hopes were high for today’s mission.

Luck was on our side today. After just a minute, Livingstone heard the bird displaying in the distance. I could hear it, too: A low, staccato burst of wing-flapping sounds made by the pitta as it jumped up and down on a branch somewhere. Gerald, Livingstone and I went running through the undergrowth until we looked up and, like magic, the Green-breasted Pitta was displaying right overhead!

In the half-light of dawn, its colors still shone like gemstones. It’s hard to describe a pitta to someone who has never seen one, because, like many things, the seeing is in the experience. This bird was very much a part of its environment. Wild tangles of vines and greenery hugged us while we watched. At exactly 6:51 a.m., the pitta fluttered away, melting into the forest, and that was it: My very first pitta! Here’s to many more in the months ahead.

New birds today: 10

Year list: 4142

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